June 28, 2005

NASA chief says shuttle ‘ready to go’ in July

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Shuttle Discovery should be ready toreturn to flight next month, NASA chief Michael Griffin said onTuesday, one day after an oversight panel found the U.S. spaceagency fell short on three key safety concerns.

"I think, based on what I know now, we're ready to go,"Griffin told the U.S. House of Representatives ScienceCommittee when asked if the shuttle would launch between July13 and July 31 as scheduled.

The three-ship shuttle fleet has been grounded since thefatal break-up of Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003, while NASA hasworked to comply with 15 recommendations by an independentboard that investigated the accident.On Monday, an expert panel found the agency had failed tosatisfy recommendations in three critical safety areas: theelimination of debris that might damage the shuttle, which wasthe problem that doomed Columbia; the "hardening" of thespaceship to withstand such debris; and the development of areliable in-flight repair system to fix debris damage.

While panel members said NASA was not in full compliance,they said that, in their view, the shuttle was safe to fly.

Griffin, who took over as NASA administrator in April,acknowledged these shortcomings but put a stark choice beforelawmakers: "At this point, we must say that we have reduced thelevel of risk from debris damage to an acceptable level ... orwe must say we don't want to fly the shuttle again."

The final go-ahead for Discovery's launch is expected onThursday, after a two-day Flight Readiness Review that Griffinsaid he would attend. The mission already has been postponedonce, from May.


The return to shuttle flight is an essential step in theBush administration's ambitious plan to return Americans to themoon by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars.

The plan calls for shuttles to resume their role inconstruction on the International Space Station, which has beenoperating with a skeleton crew of two and reached only byRussian vehicles since the grounding of the shuttle fleet.

Under the current plan, it would take 28 shuttle flights tocomplete the space station but Griffin told the House committeethere is not time to fly 28 flights to the space station andstill retire the shuttle fleet by 2010, as called for in theBush administration's program.

That means the research agenda aboard the station will haveto be re-tooled and Griffin said a report on that proposedchange should be complete by September at the latest.

Griffin also said he and Secretary of State CondoleezzaRice had written to the science committee asking for anamendment to the Iran Nonproliferation Act, which bars NASAfrom buying space goods and services from Russia as long asRussia provides weapons, missile technology and conventionalweapons technology to Iran.

NASA will have to depend on Russia for certain servicesstarting in April 2006 and would be barred from paying for themunder the nonproliferation act if it is not amended.

That would mean U.S. astronauts would only be allowedaboard the space station when the shuttle is docked there,Griffin said, and would miss the long-duration space experiencethat is key to preparing for any future flights to the moon andMars.

"For the next several years, as the space stationdevelopment and its partnership go forward, the United Statesis in the position where we cannot effectively utilize thespace station without our Russian partners," Griffin said.